Students File Complaint After Conductor Uses Racial Epithet

Elizabeth Dobbins, News Editor

Three students from the Oberlin Baroque Orchestra submitted a complaint to the Conservatory dean’s office after a rehearsal on Feb. 23, where guest conductor Jaap ter Linden told an anecdote in which he repeatedly used a racial slur. During the incident, Linden recited and joked about a children’s rhyme that includes a racial epithet in both the title and the text. He went on to suggest that those uncomfortable with this language should substitute the epithet with the word “frog.”

An official complaint was filed with Meredith Raimondo, the special assistant to the president for equity, diversity and inclusion, and other instructors filled in for Linden for the remainder of the three-week cycle, ending March 6, which he was scheduled to teach.

“I think this is not reflective of the standard of Oberlin,” said Dean of the Conservatory Andrea Kalyn. “It’s not reflective of the values of Oberlin, and it shouldn’t have happened, and I’m deeply apologetic that it did happen. There are a lot of issues it [has] brought up, and I think they’re important things to think about.”

At a meeting about the incident on Sunday night with about 25 students, faculty and staff, Kalyn stated that Linden would not be rehired at the Conservatory as long as she was the dean.

During the meeting, she also outlined several changes the Conservatory plans to make in order to prevent this kind of event from occurring. Kalyn pointed to Linden’s brief planned stay at Oberlin, which prevented him from attending the fall orientation process required for all tenure-track and visiting professors, as a problem in the Conservatory hiring and feedback system that could have potentially led to the incident.

According to Kalyn, the Conservatory plans to look into providing more opportunities for student feedback for short-term instructors and may also put together a professional development panel which could help give students guidance in reporting these incidents after they leave Oberlin and enter professional settings.

As Linden was visiting from the Netherlands, Kalyn said this incident is a reminder that the music world is an international community. She stated that a Conservatory education should address how to navigate and be sensitive to different cultural expectations.

“We work with lots of people from different cultures, whether we are in a different culture or somebody else is in ours,” Kalyn said. “How do you navigate that, and what are the sensitivities, and what do you need to think about? … How do we make sure we don’t offend in the ways that we’re offended?”

According to Kalyn, the meeting on Sunday was originally planned as a chance for her to describe the steps the Conservatory plans to take, as well as to hear the concerns of the students in the Baroque Orchestra, since she was in South Korea when the report was filed. However, in addition to these musicians, students unaffiliated with the Conservatory also attended the meeting. Some expressed concern about the limited communication about the incident with the student body.

Several students in attendance, including double-degree fifth-year and member of the Baroque Orchestra Emi Ostrom, felt the entire Conservatory and Afrikana community should have been notified immediately following the incident.

“I just think in the future they should really email the entire Conservatory when something like this happens and especially reach out to the Afrikana community and other people on campus who would be influenced by something like this,” Ostrom said.

Kalyn said her primary concern while the complaint was being processed was to communicate directly with students in the Baroque Orchestra before spreading information about the incident. However, she said she heard the students’ concerns. Since the meeting, Kalyn has sent out emails to faculty members, and students in the Conservatory and the College.

“Somebody had reached out and told other students [about the meeting], and again that was fine,” Kalyn said. “I have certainly no interest in keeping it under wraps, but my primary concern was those students. I hadn’t met with them … [and] they were owed a conversation with me, a chance to express their concern, a chance to hear what had happened and what was going to happen with their rehearsals.”

The complaint process, which can take up to 45 days, has already been completed. However, the outcome of personnel complaints is confidential, according to Raimondo.

“The process as described in the Policy on Discrimination and Harassment is necessarily confidential, related to both student and employee rights,” wrote Raimondo in an email to the Review. “Thus, that decision is not shared publicly. I understood people at the meeting to be asking about how people are informed about incidents on campus [that] may affect them. The College continues to review our communication strategies on issues related to equity, diversity and inclusion.”

In an email to the Review, Linden said that he plans to issue a written apology to the students involved. The Baroque Orchestra concert Linden was planning to conduct this Saturday has been canceled, but the students will continue to rehearse.